Year Begins, Ends with Future of Human Spaceflight Up in Air

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The future direction of NASA’s human spaceflight program was the space community’s dominant topic throughout most of 2009, which was appropriate even though the White House’s long-awaited verdict on the matter was still pending as the year drew to a close.

For now, NASA continues to press ahead with development of the hardware it would need to replace the space shuttle by 2015 and return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 under a plan crafted in response to an exploration mandate it was given in 2004. But an independent panel tasked by U.S. President Barack Obama with assessing that plan — and developing alternatives — said in August that NASA is on an “unsustainable path,” setting the stage for what most observers believe will be a change in course.

Amid the often fierce debate, pitting those whose fortunes are tied to the current architecture against those who stand to gain from a revamped plan — and with other space agencies around the world watching from the sidelines — it was easy to forget what was happening elsewhere.

It seems that every year, for example, brings a surprise event that has significant implications for space policy. In 2007, it was China’s anti-satellite test; that was followed in 2008 by the U.S. downing of a wayward U.S. spy satellite using a modified missile interceptor. This year it was the destruction of an active Iridium communications satellite in a chance collision with a spent Russian satellite. The incident, which apparently followed several close calls involving Iridium’s 66 low-orbiting satellites, brought new attention and resources to improving space surveillance capabilities and broadening access to that data, particularly for commercial satellite operators, who often rely on the U.S. Air Force for this information.

Meanwhile, 2009 saw a number of key milestones reached, including the last servicing mission to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope; the launch of Herschel and Planck, Europe’s most ambitious astronomy missions; and the successful debut flight of Japan’s HTV space station cargo carrier. But some scheduled milestones were missed in 2009, including a planned test in which the Pentagon’s Airborne Laser was to attempt to shoot down a target missile.

The list of spacefaring nations grew by one during 2009, as Iran successfully launched a satellite aboard a domestically built rocket. South Korea tried to join the club, but the debut mission of its Korea Satellite Launch Vehicle ended in failure due to what officials said was an upper stage or fairing malfunction.

The commercial satellite industry proved its resilience during 2009, with the major satellite operators reporting solid growth and earnings in defiance of the economic recession that took hold throughout much of the world. At the same time, however, there were notable bankruptcies, including Sea Launch Co., and satellite operators ProtoStar Ltd. and DBSD North America, formerly ICO North America.

Finally, 2009 saw the passing of international space law pioneer Eilene Galloway, who died at her home in Washington at the age of 102.